I remember at ten years old, going to the Fox movie theatre in downtown Columbia, South Carolina and seeing the movie “The Legend of Boggy Creek” with my dad. The movie was terrifying to me, as it was filmed like a documentary (with staged interviews) and I believed every bit of it. I remember making sure my windows were locked that night for fear the Fouke Monster would be lurking around my home. I had no idea at the time that what I was watching is what we now have classified as “folk horror”, a fairly new term that we have given a certain type of films as a sub-genre of horror.
The term really sprang into popularity as it is now when it was used in the 2010 BBC documentary series “The History of Horror” to describe three British films fans now call the Unholy Trinity: “Witchfinder General” (1968), starring Vincent Price as an inquisitor; “The Blood on Satan’s Claw” (1971), about demonic rituals in 18th-century England; and “The Wicker Man” (1973), about a pagan community on a remote Scottish island. But that was not the first use of the term. The term folk horror was first used in 1970 in the film magazine Kine Weekly by reviewer Rod Cooper describing the filming of The Devil’s Touch – a film that would later be re-named The Blood on Satan’s Claw, though of as one of the greatest films in this sub-genre.
So, what IS Folk Horror? I’ve tried not to define it in concrete terms but with characteristics that are present in these types of film (and literature). Folk Horror films have common elements present in them such as the stories coming from legends, like urban legends, folklore, and myths. They all tend to deal with either the occult, religious fanaticism, paganism, and they all tend to occur in rural or isolated types of settings.
I love folk horror movies and stories, primarily because the are from cultures and are “real” to the people within that culture. For instance, here in South Carolina in the low country sea islands, where the “Goolah” people live, they have a legend called “The BooHag” (I’m working on a story on that right now) and it is an amazing folklore among this culture. Speak to t he people down there and they will tell you without a flinch of the eyes that it is real. And that “realness” is why folk horror is so powerful.
I’ve put together a list of the Top Ten Folk Horror movies. These are only of the movies I have seen so if you have a different list, that is fine.
- The Witch (2015) – Very difficult not to put this at the top spot for me. The cinematography was amazing, and the story was creepy. This is a story about grief, grim desperation, black magic, and misogyny. It captures the tremendously difficult living in early colonies and was terrifying.
- The Wicker Man (1973) – NOT the Nicholas Cage movie from 2006. This movie, with the great Christopher Lee (of Hammer Horror films) playing in a starring role. Lee, and some of the others, worked on this movie for free so that it could be made. “The Wicker Man” follows a police sergeant named Neil Howie as he travels to the isolated island of Summerisle (Scottland) in search of a missing girl. Howie discovers quickly that the pagan rituals and cultism rules the island and is not only disturbing, but deadly.
- The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) This is probably not as high on most people’s lists as mine, but this was a personal favorite from my childhood and one of the reasons I began writing horror fiction.
- The Blair Witch Project (1999) This film was brilliant. No film students were harmed in the making of the movie, but its found-footage style, improvised dialogue, and a cast of relative unknowns gave it a rough quality that left some viewers concerned that they had watched a snuff film rather than a fictional scary story. The film tells the story of three student filmmakers, Heather, Michael, and Joshua, hiking into the Maryland wilderness to make a documentary about a local legend called the Blair Witch. While investigating the origins of the story, they learn of its connection to the disappearances of several area children over the years. As they camp out in the forest at night, the three – and the audience – experiences strange sounds, offerings in the forest, and an invisible force intent on taking them, one by one.
- The Blood of Satan’s Claw (1971) One of first films in the folk horror realm, set in England during the 1700s, it relates a bizarre series of events that slowly reveal that the children of a small village are being gradually converted to satanism.
- The Witchfinder General (1968) In the midst of the bloody English Civil War (1642-1651), Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) exploits the chaos by pretending he can identify and torture witches. With the help of an accomplice, he goes from village to village, forcing alleged “witches” to confess their misdeeds and in the process making himself rich. But when he torments a young woman, takes sexual advantage her, and kills her uncle, the girl’s fiancée seeks revenge against the Witchfinder. I love this movie because of the great Vincent Price and this character was the inspiration for one of my horror shorts, “The Asylum” , which was published in the Anthology, “Simply Horror: Seeds of Nightmares.”
- The Village (2004) The Elders wished to escape the moral turpitude of modern society and all of its corruption and crime, vying to build their own utopia instead. Utterly isolated, it is the perfect environment for totalitarianism to thrive. Terror is constructed to keep the citizens in submission: fear of the color red, preaching that the forest is brimming with savage beasts, and titling all other communities as “wicked places where wicked people live.” This movie is an exploration of how authority figures (government) can create and use fear to control its people.
- Pet Semetery (1989) Pet Sematary tells the story of the Creed family who have recently moved to Rural Maine where patriarch Louis Creed is an ER doctor. When the family cat is struck and killed by a truck on the highway in front of their house, a neighbor shows them a cemetery in the woods (labelled “Pet Sematary” by local children) where the dead buried there come back. The cat does comes back but is now angry and violent. When the family’s young son meets the same fate an overwhelmed Louis again visits the Pet Sematary. This movie was creepy as hell and the book by Stephen King was even creepier.
- MIdsommer (2019) Set in northern Sweden at the height of summertime, when the sun hardly ever sets. Dani and Christian are a young American couple whose relationship is in tatters. Christian is ready to break up with Dani, but he backpedals when Dani’s sister commits a murder-suicide involving their parents. Emotionally shattered, Dani joins Christian and his friends on a trip to a Swedish commune rife with ancient traditions. The bright and cheery atmosphere gradually turns sinister as the commune holds a festival occurring once every 90 years. Dani and Christian’s already broken relationship serves as the foundation for a physically and psychologically horrifying ordeal as the commune’s darker traditions are put on display. This movie has the feel of “The Wicker Man” in its mood and setting.
- Hereditary (2018) Directed by Ari Aster, Hereditary is a horrific family drama set atop a supernatural framework. Annie is a wife and mother whose own mother, Ellen, has just passed away before movie begins. As more about Ellen’s history and her effect on the rest of the family is revealed, past traumas are brought to the surface in terrifying ways. Is Annie losing her mind, or is there really something unnatural going on in the family’s home since her mother’s death? And what horror did Ellen leave behind for her family to inherit? I can tell you that this movie didn’t scare me as much as it did disturbed me. There is a darkness to this film that makes you shudder when it is done.